Ring out the old, ring in the new…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

It is no use blaming the Rajapaksas alone for the so-called ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ tendencies. Their SJB rivals, as also the new Tamil outfits on the block belong there.

International media focus on Elections-2020 have stopped mostly with pointing to the Rajapaksas’ great run and qualifying it as ‘autocratic and militarist’, recording the sudden exit of Ranil Wickremesinghe more than the UNP but without qualifying it, and taking note of the TNA’s reversal, not knowing what to make out of it. But the results, starting with the ‘arrival statement’, more of the breakaway SJB from the UNP as much as its leader Sajith Premadasa, hide more than they reveal.

Sri Lanka has finally taken bold to ring out the old and ring in the new – whether or not it means anything, good or bad, in the future. The Independence era UNP, the nation’s GoP and its own first breakaway SLFP are down – and almost for good. Their survival and revival does not belong to them anymore.

It is in the hands of the SJB leadership to consider if they needed the UNP brand or the ‘Elephant’ symbol any more, for them to seek and/or obtain a merger with the parent party but on their terms. In the case of the SLFP, the Rajapaksas and their SLPP holds all the cards, on the re-merger. Just to brush up memory, before the Rajapaksas, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, had done it as far back as the early nineties. She dictated terms while re-merging her breakaway faction, founded by her slain actor-husband, Vijaya Kumaranatunga.

The hunch is that the Rajapaksas, belonging in the past with their firmly in the present and eyes in the future, may not be unhappy to re-merge – retaining possibly the brand name but retaining their ‘Lotus Bud’ symbol. There may be some veterans in the SJB who may want to re-energise the UNP, but the younger elements, who caused the change, may be divided over the idea. If only they had known that the party’s ‘Telephone’ symbol could take them to the present, from an elephantine past – full of memories and nothing more – they may have chosen ‘touch-screen hand-phone / mobile’ as their symbol, to make their intentions clearer.

Generational change

Nothing explains the Tamils’ acceptance of Sajith Premadasa as the undivided UNP in the presidential poll last November than their change-of-heart about all the war-cr9imes they had heaped on his slain father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, through the past decades. It is equally so with the traditional, elite supporters of the UNP. They had identified the party with the hill-country origins. For them to accept a party leader from deep South was still unacceptable when Premadasa, Sr, came to power in the midst of the ‘Second JVP insurgency’ and the IPKF’s presence in the country. But it has become more acceptable of all options, in the 21st century, so to say.

The non-traditional, left-leaning SLFP did so very long ago, when the UNP breakaway came to be founded and led until his assassination by S W R D Bandaranaike, who was from the same plains country. But the real first step in the way the nation thought about itself came about when it voted Mahinda Rajapaksa the President for the first time in 2005. Today, the Rajapaksas of southern Hambantota and the Premadasa also of southern Hambantota are the main political players at the national-level.

Between them, the Rajapaksas and Premadasa represent change, change in the way the nation is thinking and acting. Maybe, on a rainy day, some UNP veterans would be lazily talking about the possibility of better showing if only they had listened to the voice of the future and also read the writing on the wall, say as far back as 2005, if not earlier. But then, Sajith P might have had to wait, it he had thrown his hat into the ring that early.

If a Sajith had not been born for this occasion, one would have been created. It was so with the Rajapaksas and the SLFP, when Mahinda took charge after his wafer-thin victory in the presidential polls in 2005. Was it also the reason why he needed to prove himself to the nation faster than he might have been prepared for – in terms of ending terrorism and eliminating the LTTE?

Taking lead, taking charge

Those that commented on the China-centric Hambantota port project as his own developmental need to present something big to his core constituency, forgot one thing. In theoretical terms, it is possible that the Rajapaksas might have wanted the war victory more and faster than the Tamil voters and the LTTE might have thought in 2005.

Stray thoughts apart, this election is about change, not in the political direction of the country but also on the ideological front. It is easy to attribute it all to the v’vice grip’ of the Rajapaksas. That tells only a part of the story. There is a constituency that craves for it. If the Rajapaksas did not feel the pulse and act accordingly, someone else would have been born for taking the lead and taking charge.

Maybe, it is all about the internal dynamics of the majority Sinhala on the one hand and the Sinhala-Buddhists on the other. But recall how the SLFP was born out of the UNP in September 1951, and how SWRD ended up taking a hard-line on the ethnic issue and also came up with a constituency-centric ‘Sinhala Only’ law, and the picture will be complete. Seventy years and two or three generations down the line, Sri Lanka remains where it was – and has ‘re-discovered’ itself so to say. Is is right or wrong is a different question altogether.

Hard-liners, all….

Nothing explains the perception better and clearer than the emergence of retired Navy officer, Rear-Admiral Sarath Weerasekara has recorded the highest number of 328,092 preferential votes in cosmopolitan Colombo, the national capital. The city has a substantial number of Tamils, both SLT and Upcountry Tamils, as also Tamil-speaking Muslims, yet the one-time stronghold of the ‘right, liberal’ UNP has done it this way. The city rejected Wickremesinghe outright and gave Pramadasa 305,744 votes

It is not only about a dozen ‘Viyathmaga group’ members from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pre-poll think-tank circle won on the SLPP ticket. It is equally so about Sarath Weerasekara winning more votes than the Rajapaksas’ Colombo district strongman Wimal Weerawansa 267,084 votes. Weerawansa’s is anyway a strong ‘Sinhala nationalist position’ but Weerasekara’s has been the only non-State Sinhala voice to be heard in side-shows outside the UNHRC in Geneva through the past decade.

In neighbouring Gampaha district, Viyathmaga’s and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (325,479 votes) came on top, followed by SLPP veteran, Prasanna Ranatunga, a brother of cricket legend Arjuna Ranatunga, who is on the opposite side of the political fence. Barring Weerasekara, other Vyathmaga candidates or those from such other Gotabaya outfits like Yuthugama and Eliya have no parliamentary experience in the past, but the voters are ready to trust them than traditional poliicians and their parties. The chances are that some of the Vyathmaga winners will find a place in the fourth Mahinda Rajapaksa Ministry when President Gotabaya swear them in on Wednesday.

But none can expect to bear BSS founder Gnanasara Thero at it in the new Parliament. After his ‘Our People’s Party’ (Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya, AJBP) managed to secure a ‘National List’ MPs though not an elected parliamentarian, the party has announced its decision to send Gnanasara to the new House.

Ironically, the Thero party polled double the number of votes than GoP in the UNP – 400,000-plus against 200,000-plus, at the national-level. Whoever is the Speaker in the new Parliament – it is for the Rajapaksas to name one – he or she will have a tough time restraining the Thero on the one hand and possibly some of the new, non-TNA Tamil MPs, on the other.

Tamil dilemma

In all this, the Tamil dilemma is the worst. The Tamils have given fewer seats to the TNA – down from 22 in 2010 to 16 in 2015 to 10 at present. Minus the National List seat, the TNA’s score is at 9, or in single-digit. Yet, the Tamil voters do not know what hit them and where are they going from here…

First and foremost, for the first time in years, the Tamils have voted in three MPs from two hard-line ‘Tamil nationalist’ parties. Two of them belong to the alliance led by Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, the chip of the old Ponnambalam clan, which has been in Tamil politics from the turn of Independence. While Gajan is one of the two from his combine, polling 31,658 votes Justice C V Wigneswaran, the failed TNA Chief Minister of Northern Province (2013-18) is the other, polling the lowest preferential votes of 21,554 in Jaffna district.  21,000-plus vo

The only TNA elect to cross the 30,000-vote-mark is S Sritharan with 35,884 votes, followed by M A Sumanthiran (27,834 votes) and D Sitharthan (23,840 votes). TNA boss, the veteran R Sampanthan, scrapped through in native eastern Trincomalee, polling 21,000-plus votes. The party drew a blank in another Eastern district, Ampara, though it all can be attributed to better Rajapaksa strategy, in turn credited to the silent operator in Basil Rajapaksa.

Already, the blame-game is on within the TNA, to find scape-goats for their total failure as a party. Now with Provincial Council polls not too far away, the PLOTE and TELO partners in the TNA can be expected to arm-twist the ITAK leader of the alliance, into yielding more, or else….For the immediate, the TNA has begun fighting over the ‘National List’ MP, with many wanting it for ITAK president, Maavai Senathiraja, who came sixth of ten TNA candidates for Jaffna district, polling just about 20,000 popular votes.

Even more interesting and complex is the Northern Tamil choice of two pro-Rajapaksa candidates, and giving them the highest number of preferential votes among all in ‘heart-land’ Jaffna. Angajan Ramanathan (36,895 votes) is also the lone SLFP victor in this election, the party’s ex-President, Maithripala Sirisena contesting and winning from his native Polonnaruwa district on the Rajapaksas’ ‘Lotus Bud’ symbol. The other, Douglas Devananda (32,156 votes) is an old war-horse in Jaffna politics, having won his MP seat even when the LTTE was around, and which had targeted his life about a dozen times.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)